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The Most Important Relationship Between a Reader and a Writer

Franz Kafka is known for creating a particular type of closed-up and self-sufficient, ongoing allegory; a world which seems alive by itself.

The Byzantine process of reading

Reading is a more Byzantine process than what most people realize. Unless there is some other motive at play – such as the reading being done as part of an academic assignment – the reader will tend to quickly establish whether or not they like a work, and will accordingly either carry on with becoming familiar with the author’s output, or will form a negative impression, and move on to look at some other writer.

However, once an author manages to impress a reader, the faults in the writing will become less visible; because by then one will be automatically thinking more highly of any sentence by that author, due to unconsciously complimenting it with those prevalent bits of the work which have at other times caused such a positive impression… This can, in time, easily lead to the author being regarded by the reader as flawless, incredibly gifted, or even uniquely profound. And while it should go without saying that in part this was a success owed to the actual merits of the work, it nevertheless should be noted that it is the reader who idolizes it, while its author would still be aware of any problematic elements within it…

Goya's painting, "The Sleep of Reason"

Goya's painting, "The Sleep of Reason"

Use of symbols does create a multi-level labyrinth

Some types of fiction are making heavier use of symbolism and allegory than others. While it is one thing to present a symbolic image, and also reveal its intended meaning – a good example of that is found in Baudelaire’s poetry; where the majestic bird, the Albatross, which is flying over the ocean, is symbolizing the poet – it is quite another to construct an intricate allegory where the meaning is to remain ambiguous.

Kafka’s allegories seldom provide a specific path for the aspiring decoder of his richly interwoven metaphors… One can always provide arguments in favor of a set meaning, but counter-arguments are never out of the question. Gregor Samsa being transformed (in Kafka's novella, The Metamorphosis) into a non-human creature may logically be argued to symbolize his failing health, or fall from power, or even the onset of a severe depression; but we cannot actually decipher it fully, and it is a far more ambiguous symbol than Baudelaire’s lyrical metaphor for the high-flying poet…

And yet an even larger labyrinth may be formed unwittingly

But not all suggestive terms have to be consciously devised and put to use as symbols… In fact it is often the case that a seemingly isolated term, or a small sentence which did appear in passing, can cause us to automatically reflect, and come up with thoughts which have critical importance for our own life.

One of Franz Kafka’s most impressive quotes is about this phenomenon, which in his view was of fundamental value: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”. By which he meant that a book we like to read may cause us to identify paths inside of our own psyche; those paths which, up to then, had remained out of sight, or were closed up, and under the influence of the sentences we just read did appear to form their first schisms and alert us that there are more things to discover if we keep focusing on this suddently revealed opening to our inner world...

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

What kind of sentence may cause such an effect?

A number of known authors have written – in journals or epistles – of their conscious end to have some effect on the reader, by using subtle and suggestive language. Some have even created full works where the main subject had been this elusive pool of either personal or panathropic symbols and words or phrases which might command the power to awaken the reader (or even the author) from an idiosyncratic slumber. Henry James, notably, presented a couple of novellas with this thematic: The Figure in the Carpet, and The Beast in the Jungle. James does seem to have been one of those authors who were mostly trying to wake their own selves up, from a state of perpetual idleness; at least that is the absolute focal point of the latter novella: the Beast in the Jungle is a monument to the sense of lurking fear, which keeps the protagonist from examining his own self more thoroughly.

The lack of will to look deeper isn’t unique to Henry James, of course. It isn’t unique to writers either. Arguably every person has the need for a degree of balance, and tranquility. And this does call for anchoring at some safe harbor. It is in art, though, and more specifically in books written by talented authors, where we, the readers, may hope to find a less direct way of getting in touch with our own hidden world of thoughts. Because as we are reading we may feel that someone else – the author – is guiding us, and therefore we are not alone in our journey to those regions of our mental world which we did have to abandon in the course of our lives – so as to make room for a more social outlook that we all need to possess so as to function as human beings and active parts of a society... In this way, the author does become an associate of ours.

And one would be really ungrateful if they wouldn’t repay the favor, by identifying this literary companion as one of great expressive powers. But, in reality, and after we have had a deeper look into this, what is going on here, what is taking place when we read an author we do love, is often of a significantly different, and likely more intricate and important quality and overall meaning...


Henry James

Henry James

More on the importance of writing fiction

© 2018 Kyriakos Chalkopoulos

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